LAKE FOREST, Calif. – American voters were given a unique opportunity Saturday to hear the presumed Republican and Democratic presidential nominees speak on the issues of greatest concern to Christians around the nation at the very venue that will likely determine who will win in November – church.
At the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, hosted by Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain were asked nearly identical questions on stewardship, leadership, worldview and America's role in the world. According to Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, who was the sole interviewer throughout the two-hour event, the goal of the civil forum was to "restore civility in our civil discourse."
"Now, we believe in the separation of church and state," Warren said in his introduction before heading into the first round of questions with Obama, "but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics because faith is just a world view and everybody has some kind of world view."
"And it's important to know what they are," he told the packed crowd of over 6,500 in Saddleback's worship center, reiterating statements made prior to the forum.
Starting with Obama – who was selected to go first by a coin toss, Warren sat down for a one-hour interview with each of the presidential hopefuls, both of whom the megachurch pastor identified as friends, patriots, and "people who both care deeply about America."
Warren's questions – which were drawn from the input of pastors and church leaders throughout America and a team of experts on issues such as religious persecution and AIDS – ranged from personal questions on the candidate's greatest moral failures and most gut-wrenching decisions they've had to make to "values" questions on issues such as abortion, marriage and stem cells.
While the responses from Obama and McCain contrasted on a number of issues, as expected, such as their opinions of the present Supreme Court justices, the two senators notably agreed on what America's great moral failure is – the lack of selflessness.
"I think America's greatest moral failure in my lifetime is that we still don't abide by that basic precept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me," responded Obama during his session with Warren as McCain waited in "a cone of silence."
"There is a pervasive sense, I think, that this country is wealthy and powerful as we still don't spend enough time thinking about the least of these," he added.
McCain, in his response, said America's greatest moral failure "has been throughout our existence, perhaps that we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self interest although we've been at the best at it of anybody in the world."
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee urged for greater American participation in the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, and faith-based and volunteer organizations.
"The first words of your very successful book is 'This is not about you,'" McCain said, citing from Warren's best-selling "Purpose Driven Life."
"And you know that really also means, serve a cause greater than your self interest," he added.
Aside from America's greatest moral failure and the belief that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, responses from the two presidential contenders were largely divergent.
When the issue of abortion was brought up, McCain succinctly replied that babies are entitled to human rights at the moment of conception and pointed out his 25-year pro-life record in the Congress and the Senate. Obama, on the other hand, stood by his pro-choice platform but reiterated that he is not pro-abortion.
"I don't think women make these decisions casually," he explained. "They wrestle with these things in profound ways – in consultation with their pastors or spouses or their doctors and their family members."
Obama suggested that there were other ways to lower the abortion rate, including the reduction of the number of unwanted pregnancies and the providing of resources that allow women to make the choice to keep a child.
The democratic senator was also put on the spot when asked about his thoughts on faith-based organizations, struggling to answer directly Warren's question on whether faith-based organizations should forfeit the right to access federal funds due to their policy on hiring people based on faith.
"Generally speaking, faith-based organizations should not be advantaged or disadvantaged when it comes to getting federal funds by virtue of the fact that they are faith-based organizations," he said.
McCain also had his share of awkward moments.
Most notably, when asked what it means to be a follower of Christ and how faith works out in his life on a daily basis, McCain replied that he's saved and forgiven and quickly went into telling the story of his run-in with a Vietnamese Christian soldier during his time as a POW.
"I'll never forget that moment," McCain said after recalling the moments of solidarity he shared with the Vietnamese Christian soldier.
On the other hand, Obama – who has been noted as more spiritual, though liberal, than McCain – replied clearly that Christ "is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis."
"I know that I don't walk alone, and I know that if I can get myself out of the way, that I can maybe carry out in some small way what He intends," he said.
In their conclusions, both candidates claimed their ability to reach across the table as a strength that they would offer to America as the nation's next president.
"I have a record of reaching across the aisle and working with the other party, and I want to do that and I believe, as I said, that Americans feel it's time for us to put our country first," said McCain during his one-minute summary on why he wants to be president.
In addition to his "ability to build bridges across partisan lines, racial, regional lines," Obama said he feels like the American dream "is slipping away."
"I think we are at a critical juncture economically; I think we are at a critical juncture internationally," he added.
After the two-hour event, Joshua Dubois, who serves as Obama's national director of religious affairs, praised the Illinois senator for having done "a phenomenal job."
"Now, I think, a lot of people will be leaning toward him," Dubois told The Christian Post.
Stephanie Vogelzang, evangelical consultant for the McCain campaign, meanwhile noted how "authentic and genuine" McCain's responses were.
"I thought he brought a ton of energy," she added.
On Sunday, Warren was scheduled to deliver a special sermon, entitled "The Kind of Leader America Needs" and based on biblical principles of leadership. The next Saddleback Civil Forum in September will feature former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.